Moving with children is always difficult, but when you’re moving internationally there’s a lot more to think about – not only will you have to settle your offspring into a completely new way of life with new languages to learn, new friends to make and new food to get accustomed to, but you probably also need to find them a new school. So where should you even begin in knowing how to find a school for your children when moving abroad?
Well, the simplest and least stressful way is to use a relocation company that offers home search and school search services, like us. But, if you're going it alone and want to handle this yourself, here's a guide.
Location, location, location – it’s probably all you’ve thought about in the run up to your move; after all, little else matters compared to finding the right place to re-home your family. But it’s not just important when it comes to finding a new home: where you choose to settle will affect all sorts of things – the new job you get, the new friends you make, and, most importantly, the new school your children will attend.
We all know how important the school years are for shaping the kind of people we become – get it right and your child will thrive both intellectually and socially, going on to pursue their dreams with confidence. Get it wrong and life becomes a lot harder.
It can be hard enough to choose the best place to educate your child in the UK – but what about when it comes to finding somewhere abroad? Searching for a good school in a foreign country where you’re unfamiliar with the educational systems in place whilst trying to make the transition for your child as seamless as possible can be incredibly overwhelming, but there are some things you can do to make it easier – for you and your children.
Do your homework
Firstly – and this will probably come as no surprise – you need to do your homework. Preparing for an international move of this magnitude involves many months’ worth of research – from narrowing down the area you want to live in, to finding the perfect house – it all needs careful consideration. Make sure you sit down and explore your new neighbourhood as thoroughly as you can before you get there – read up on as much as you can and join any internet forums where you can ask real people who’ve been through the same thing you’re about to questions about what to expect.
Part of your objective when choosing somewhere to live in your new country might be that it incorporates an excellent choice of schools for all levels of your child’s education – and that’s great if you’re afforded the luxury of being able to pick and choose, but what if you’re not? If you’re part of a corporate relocation, for example, and don’t have much influence over where you’re going, then you need to make sure you are armed with as much information as possible about the schools in that area.
One bonus of this kind of relocation is that you should know well in advance of your move where you’re going, so the planning can take place a lot earlier. Use this to your advantage – research the schools, narrow down your choices and start contact with them as early as possible. Find out what enrolment requirements are needed and start the ball rolling. If you’re worried about particularly anxious children settling in when you get there then perhaps you could even get in touch with the head teacher and see if they can arrange for your child to get some pen pals in their new class so that they’ve at least spoken to a few of the children already by the time their first day comes around.
When you’re looking into your options, see if you can access any league tables or information online that might give you an indication as to how well the school is doing. Is it regulated by a government body that publishes inspection results regularly? Are there local news reports on how well the school has been doing recently? Does the school have its own website where you are able to look back over exam results? Check Twitter and Facebook to see if it has its own page there where you can read comments from students or parents. All of these things will help you to build a bigger picture for yourself.
When you get there
One of the best things you can do once you get to your new neighbourhood is to go and visit a few of the schools you’re considering. Doing your research is one thing, but actually seeing a school and how it runs for yourself is quite another.
Most schools have open days for prospective new pupils, though it’s not always possible to match this up with your arrival. If you can’t attend an open day, speak with the head teacher and see if there’s any way you can make a special visit with your children to have a look around.
Whilst you’re there, make note of the things you observe carefully – are you allowed to access all areas and if not, why not? Are the teachers and students polite? Do students seem to be interacting well together and responding to what the teacher asks of them without complaint?
Official open days will always showcase a school at its best – students and teachers will be well prepared for your visit, so bear in mind you’re witnessing a more ‘polished’ version of events that day.
What you ask, who you ask and how you ask it will give you a lot of valuable information. Start with the teachers – ask them how long they’ve worked there, what they do to welcome new students, how they deal with disobedience and observe their general teaching style. One of the best questions to ask is whether they would send their own children to the school – granted, they’re probably not going to give a flat-out ‘no’ for an answer, but what they say and how they say it will reveal a lot to you about their opinions of the school.
Next, speak to the kids. Children are always far more honest in the answers they give, making it easy for you to gauge how much they’re enjoying their time at school. Ask them about the things they’re learning about and whether they enjoy the way they’re taught. Ask them if there’s anything that could be improved or whether they feel they’re always encouraged and supported in achieving their very best. And always ask them about bullying – while teachers will tell you how they intend to deal with bullies, children will more likely give you an honest account of whether bullying actually takes place and what teachers really do to punish bullies. It’s rare for a school to encounter no bullying whatsoever, so always be wary of teachers or children who tell you otherwise – they’re either covering up the extent of the problem or no real guidelines are in place to deal with the issue as and when it inevitably arises.
It’s hard not to, but don’t get so focused on asking all of your questions that you forget to take in the little things during your visit. If you have the time, see if you can enquire about staff sickness levels – a consistently high level of staff sickness can point to a more stressful environment with teachers covering each other’s classes or substitute teachers coming in that are unfamiliar with the children’s regular lesson patterns – children thrive on routine, so repeated disruptions should give cause for concern.
On the subject of teachers, ask them all what they thing about the head – honestly. Keep it light by asking simple questions about whether they think the head teacher is effective, how the children respond to the head, or what his or her core values are and whether they’re translated around the school.
If you can, try and visit the school at lunch time. This way, you’ll get to see how the children interact with each other outside of the classroom, which is very important if you’re particularly concerned about bullying. You’ll also get to observe how the duty staff deal with any problems that may arise.
And finally, take in the general condition of the school. This will come naturally as you walk around, but pay attention to the condition of the classrooms and toilets – are they well-kept, clean, tidy and have adequate furniture in good condition? What about the outside – are the gardens and playground well maintained and well protected from dangers like open roads, ponds and cars? You’ll be sending your children here for a large portion of their week so making sure you feel they’ll be safe, secure and well looked after is absolutely essential.
Once you’ve finally picked the right school – one with which both you and your children are happy – there are a few last steps you need to go through.
Generally, as an expat, you’ll be able to apply for your children to attend the school of your choosing at any time through the educational year. For younger children who will reach school age after your move, the process might be slightly different and it’s likely you’ll have to apply for their position in the same way as any other resident. If you already have children at that school then it’ll be much easier to find all of this out.
Another thing you’ll need to liaise with the school over is their enrolment procedure. As an expat, it’s likely the school will want your child to perform a few basic tests in their core subjects just to determine what level they’re at in comparison to their standards and which grade would best suit them. It might be the case that your child has to go back a year, but don’t be disheartened – different countries will have different curriculums so there are bound to be a few discrepancies. It’s more than likely that once your child has settled and become accustomed to their new style of teaching that they’ll catch up to where they need to be and be readjusted accordingly.
Ask about the extra curricular facilities available to your child – does the school run summer camps or after school activities that might be of particular interest? Not only will they provide a constant if your child enjoys a certain hobby like sport or playing an instrument, thus alleviating some homesickness and diminishing any concerns about everything the child loves suddenly being ‘taken away’, but it’s also a great way for children to socialise and bond with people that have similar interests - particularly if they’re having a bit of a hard time and are missing friends from home.
If your child is of school leaving age and will be finishing their education in your new country then it’s important you take the time to understand and become familiar with the kind of qualifications they will receive. How will it affect their ability to move on to further education? Are they wanting to return home to the UK to go to university and how will their new qualifications impact upon that? Will their qualification translate internationally if they ever want to return to the UK to work? What if they don’t want to carry on with education and need help with getting a job? These are all important questions that you and your child will want reassurance over, so make sure you take the time to sit down and run through it with your child’s new head teacher.
Another important factor in readjustment is the language barrier. Not such an issue if you’re emigrating to a country like Australia, New Zealand or America, where English is the mother tongue, but if you’re going somewhere with a dual dialect, like Canada for instance, or anywhere in Europe then it can make the transition that little bit harder.
Speak with the school and see what their policies are regarding the integration of expats; some countries will have English speaking school you can send your children to with no problem, for others speaking at least a little of the native language will be a prerequisite. In this case, it’s not uncommon for your children to be placed in classes where no English is spoken, thus forcing them to learn the new language at a faster pace.
It’s probably the last thing on your mind, but make sure once you’re settled in to your new home and the children have been accepted at their new school that you enquire about transport. If you can walk the kids to school then great, but you might simply live too far away for this to be an option and if you’re starting a new job and don’t have the time to do the school run by car then you need to make sure they know how to get about by themselves.
Some schools will offer a free or small fee bus service that collects all the children on a particular route. Others don’t, meaning your children will have to get themselves there and back unaided. This can be a particularly daunting prospect for children in an unfamiliar country who’ve possibly never had to negotiate the logistics of public transport alone before.
Once you’ve settled in, see if you can do a test run with them to make sure they understand how to get around and what to do at all the various stages – including what to say in their new language if necessary, as well as making sure they understand the foreign currency. Not only will this put their minds at rest, but yours also. If there’s a neighbour nearby whose child regularly does the same journey, see if you can invite them over a few times before they start school. Having a familiar face to look out for on the journey can be comforting in those first few unfamiliar weeks.
Make it official
And last, but by no means least, always, always, always enquire about the Visa procedure for your children when enrolling with a new school. As you will probably know by now, every country will have a different policy when it comes to visa requirements for each and every member of the family. Some countries will allow your children to attend school for a short period under your visa, but most will require that they have a visa in their own right (usually a student visa).
There is little point in going through all of this hard work in picking a school and trying to settle your children in if they’re just going to be removed within a few weeks, only for you to have to go through it all again. Visas should always be your first priority when organising your move abroad and never an afterthought.